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Pronounced /ˈwɒbɪɡɒŋ/Help with pronunciation

This Australian shark is brown with buff markings and a flattened body, one of an order called the orectolobes (from the Greek orektos, stretched out), which includes the nurse sharks and the whale shark; another name for them is carpet sharks. As a writer on Australian English has pointed out, “The fish is not peculiar to Australia, but the name is”. Its name probably comes from a New South Wales Aboriginal language, though nobody seems sure which.

After seeing a small specimen of wobbegong, or carpet shark, I was very keen to catch one. This fellow is about the most curious sea creature to be found. He resembles a long strip of Brussels carpet. He lies fairly flat on the bottom, almost like a flounder or halibut. He looks like seaweed and is a remarkable example of nature's protective coloration.

An American Angler in Australia, by Zane Grey, 1937.

The wobbegong disguises itself so well on the sea floor that unwary divers often step on it. Actually, one writer says it looks as though it has already been stepped on, but that’s just rampant speciesism. It’s notable, though, that few of those who describe it have much that’s positive to say about it. One list of Australian species calls it “mostly harmless”, uncannily like the updated description of Earth in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A textbook on biology describes it as “small, sluggish and cryptic”, this last epithet meaning not that it speaks in riddles but that it is well camouflaged.

Though a normally inoffensive member of the shark clan, even a wobbegong may take umbrage at such descriptions, or to being stepped on, and bite the unwary.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Sep. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 16 September 2000.